SC: Rule of per incuriam applies only to the ratio of the judgement

A Constitution Bench of the Hon’ble Supreme Court, on 2nd March 2020, in the matter of DR. SHAH FAESAL AND ORS. v. UNION OF INDIA AND ANR. pronounced that the rule of per incuriam being an exception to the doctrine of precedents is only applicable to the ratio of the judgment. The same having an impact on the stability of the legal precedents must be applied sparingly, when there is an irreconcilable conflict between the opinions of two co­ordinate Benches.

The Hon’ble Supreme Court observed that:

Supreme Court’s jurisprudence has shown that usually the Courts do not overrule the established precedents unless there is a social, constitutional or economic change mandating such a development. The numbers themselves speak of restraint and the value this Court attaches to the doctrine of precedent. The Supreme Court regards the use of precedent as indispensable bedrock upon which this Court renders justice. The use of such precedents, to some extent, creates certainty upon which individuals can rely and conduct their affairs. It also creates a basis for the development of the rule of law. (Para 17) 

Doctrine of precedents and stare decisis are the core values of our legal system. They form the tools which further the goal of certainty, stability and continuity in our legal system. Arguably, judges owe a duty to the concept of certainty of law, therefore they often justify their holdings by relying upon the established tenets of law. (Para 18) 

When substantial judicial time and resources are spent on references, the same should not be made in a casual or cavalier manner. It is only when a proposition is contradicted by a subsequent judgment of the same Bench, or it is shown that the proposition laid down has become unworkable or contrary to a well­established principle, that a reference will be made to a larger Bench. (Para 19)

The decisions rendered by a coordinate Bench is binding on the subsequent Benches of equal or lesser strength. (Para 23)

A judgment of the Supreme Court can be distinguished into two parts: ratio decidendi and the obiter dictum. The ratio is the basic essence of the judgment, and the same must be understood in the context of the relevant facts of the case. (Para 25)

The rule of per incuriam has been developed as an exception to the doctrine of judicial precedent. Literally, it means a judgment passed in ignorance of a relevant statute or any other binding authority. (Para 28)

Judgments cannot be interpreted in a vacuum, separate from their facts and context. Observations made in a judgment cannot be selectively picked in order to give them a particular meaning. (Para 42)

The framework of Article 370(2) of the Indian Constitution was such that any decision taken by the State Government, which was not an elected body but the Maharaja of the State acting on the advice of the Council of Ministers which was in office by virtue of the Maharaja’s proclamation dated March 5, 1948, prior to the sitting of the Constituent Assembly of the State, would have to be placed before the Constituent Assembly, for its decision as provided under Article 370(2) of the Constitution. The rationale for the same is clear, as the task of the Constituent Assembly was to further clarify the scope and ambit of the constitutional relationship between the Union of India and the State of Jammu and Kashmir, on which the State Government as defined under Article 370 might have already taken some decisions, before the convening of the Constituent Assembly, which the Constituent Assembly in its wisdom, might ultimately not agree with. Constituent Assembly’s decision under Article 370(2) was final. This finality has to be read as being limited to those decisions taken by the State Government under Article 370 prior to the convening of the Constituent Assembly of the State, in line with the language of Article 370(2). (Para 43)

Rule of per incuriam being an exception to the doctrine of precedents is only applicable to the ratio of the judgment. The same having an impact on the stability of the legal precedents must be applied sparingly, when there is an irreconcilable conflict between the opinions of two co­ordinate Benches. (Para 46)

Copy of judgement: Judgement_02-Mar-2020

-Adv. Tushar Kaushik

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